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Lubbers urges safe passage, access for Liberia victims

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Lubbers urges safe passage, access for Liberia victims

4 July 2002 Also available in:

4 July 2002

GENEVA - UN High Commissioner for Refugees Ruud Lubbers today called for safe passage for thousands of desperate refugees and displaced civilians caught up in fighting in Liberia. He also urged all sides to allow secure access to the strife-torn region by humanitarian workers trying to bring help to the victims.

"There are thousands of innocent civilians believed hiding in the bush in Liberia who urgently need help," Lubbers said. "I appeal to all parties throughout the region to ensure that humanitarian assistance can be safely delivered to these people, and that those who wish to leave can find safe passage to secure areas."

Lubbers made the urgent plea after a Geneva meeting with visiting UNHCR country representatives from Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. The representatives are in Geneva this week for consultations on West Africa and are scheduled to brief UNHCR's donors on Friday as part of a new $10.4 million appeal for emergency assistance to Liberian refugees.

UNHCR is extremely concerned about the current fighting in Liberia and the impact it could have on the still-fragile peace process in Sierra Leone and the region. Since the beginning of this year, some 40,000 Liberian refugees have fled to Sierra Leone and more are arriving daily. Another 37,000 have gone to Côte d'Ivoire, Guinea and Ghana. Tens of thousands more Liberians are believed newly displaced within Liberia itself, where insecurity has now spread across six counties.

The latest influx from Liberia has put an enormous strain on humanitarian staff, resources and infrastructure in Sierra Leone, which was already trying to cope with the return of tens of thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees from neighbouring countries.

UNHCR is particularly worried about thousands of Sierra Leonean refugees and internally displaced Liberians who fled the Sinje camp in western Liberia on June 20 after rebels affiliated with the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) attacked the site. Prior to the attack, Sinje housed more than 11,000 Sierra Leonean refugees and 13,000 displaced Liberians. The camp was looted and destroyed in the attack in which four refugees were reported killed and five nurses working for an NGO partner of UNHCR abducted.

Lubbers also called for the immediate release of the five nurses, who were taken away by LURD rebels driving a stolen UNHCR ambulance. They later used the ambulance's radio to contact UNHCR to report that the nurses were being held but would not be harmed.

Those Sierra Leoneans and Liberians who have managed to cross the border to Sierra Leone reported that the main highway to the border is very insecure and that thousands of people were still hiding in the forest, trying to find a way to safety. With the only road to Sierra Leone closed, UNHCR is looking at the possibility of sea or air transport for the estimated 35,000 Sierra Leonean refugees who remain in Liberia.

"We need to get them out of the conflict area as soon as possible," said Lubbers, who is scheduled to attend next week's meeting of the Organisation of African Unity in Durban, South Africa. "Their situation is getting more desperate by the day."

To cope with the new influx from Liberia, UNHCR is issuing a supplementary appeal for $10.4 million to care for up to 100,000 refugee arrivals in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Côte d'Ivoire. The emergency appeal will cover a variety of needs, including rehabilitation and construction of camps, domestic needs, transport and logistics, water, sanitation, health and nutrition, and protection monitoring.

"As Liberian refugee numbers continue to grow, it has become impossible for UNHCR to accommodate their emergency needs within existing programmes," said a letter to donors from Anne Willem Bijleveld, the refugee agency's Director of Communication and Information. "Meanwhile, indications are that the situation in Liberia is unlikely to improve and there is a real risk that it could further deteriorate."